Italy focuses on Libya mission to manage migrant crisis

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MILAN (AP) — Italy is putting its hopes for managing the migrant crisis on a new, Libya-requested mission to support the North African nation's coast guard despite suffering a rebuke by humanitarian groups.

Ministers were briefing parliamentary committees Tuesday on a Cabinet-approved mission that would deploy Italy's navy to assist the Libyan coast guard in patrolling its territorial waters. A vote could come as early as Wednesday.

Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti told a joint meeting of parliament's defense and foreign affairs commissions that Italian ships would respond to specific Libyan requests and that the deployment would not impinge on Libya's sovereignty.

Pinotti also denied the claim from some human rights groups that the mission would constitute a naval blockade.

Premier Paolo Gentiloni says Italy's assistance off the coast of Libya could become a "turning point" in his country's effort to manage the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean Sea.

The U.N. migration agency says 94,802 migrants have reached Italy this year as of Sunday, a number on par with last year and which represents 85 percent of Europe's new arrivals. The agency estimates that 2,221 people have drowned this year while attempting to cross the main Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy.

Italy's bid to get 10 humanitarian groups to agree to new rules of conduct for rescuing people from the Mediterranean failed when at least four, including Doctors Without Borders, refused to sign on Monday.

Amnesty International was the most recent group to criticize the plan, saying that dispatching warships to aid the Libyan coast guard was "a shameful attempt to circumvent the rescue of migrants and refugees."

Objections to the Italian demands include a provision that would permit armed police on the rescue ships. Several non-governmental groups strenuously oppose having weapons on the ships at any time, saying guns and humanitarian operations are incompatible.

The groups also oppose a proposed rule that would prevent them from transferring rescued migrants to other vessels, which would force their boats back to port instead of allowing them to keep doing rescues.

Doctors Without Borders general director Gabriele Eminente said her charity would continue to work in the Mediterranean "but at the moment, I don't understand what the failure to sign means."

The Italian government has said humanitarian groups who do not agree to the new rules could be refused access to Italian ports.

But it seems unlikely that Italy could deprive them of access to its ports. Under international law, vessels that have rescued people must not be subject to undue delay, financial burden or other difficulties, according to the U.N.'s refugee agency.

In Brussels, European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said that if the groups "adhere to some principles and operational standards, in line with international law, then they will have the assurance that they can access Italian ports."

At least three groups accepted the Italian government's rules: Save the Children, Malta's MOAS and the Spanish group Proactiva. The EU is encouraging more to sign up.

Italy drafted the code of conduct after prosecutors in Sicily alleged that some non-governmental organizations had been colluding with the smugglers who send boatloads of migrants out daily from Libya, for example by signaling their presence in one area of the sea.

Groups including Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders denied the allegations, and said the claims undermined their humanitarian work by creating a climate of mistrust.


This story has been corrected from an earlier version to show that the number of migrants to Italy this year is on par to 2016 figures, not up 11 percent.


Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.

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